Williams searching for his NFL voice


Shawn Williams

Shawn Williams who, in the quiet manner of that new species known as Bengal Bulldog has opened almost as many eyes as roommate Tyler Eifert, didn't have to wait long. He found out rather immediately what the Bengals expected when he showed up at rookie minicamp a few weeks back.

"Rey Maualuga put the pressure on me when I first got here," Williams says. "All the Georgia guys play. They start around here. Put a lot of pressure on me."

Williams is smiling. Pressure? What pressure when you call out your teammates the week you play the blood feud with Florida and you end up leading the Dawgs to the Holy Grail of an SEC title game against Alabama?

"When I heard we drafted Shawn Williams (in the third round), you saw what he said before the Florida game?" asks Geno Atkins, one of seven seen-but-not-heard Bulldogs on the roster. "He basically called the defense out, saying they were soft and they came out fired up. With a couple of games under his belt and in a couple of years, he'll be a great leader for the Bengals."

But first things first.

Williams has to find that same voice in the veteran Bengals secondary if he wants to bid for the Opening Day safety job opposite Reggie Nelson. Yet with the coaches urging him to speak up before the snap, Williams has still made an impressive first impression.

At 6-0, 213 pounds, he's as explosive as his tape and this past week he picked off two passes in the voluntary workouts (OTAs) in his continuing quest to show he's NFL coverage competent after a career Georgia asked him to roam the box. And he's picked up the Xs and Os as quickly as you'd expect an SEC field general, making the Bengals think that maybe, just maybe, they've found another mid-draft gem from Athens.

"I've got a great memory and that helps me with the playbook," says Williams, who points to his recent performance in Cincinnati's neurophysiology exam that sets the baseline for concussion treatment.

"They said I was off the charts when it came to the visuals. I never forget a face. I'm not that good with names, but I never forget a face. That's kind of how I picture the playbook."

A quick review of the faces in the crowd at safety:

Williams and rangy George Iloka (6-4, 225), a 2012 fifth-rounder, have both had good springs asserting themselves in the Chicago derby for the Sept. 8 opener.

At 6-3, 230 pounds, four-year veteran Taylor Mays is also a factor because his size and physicality make him a wild card. While the Bengals hope to foul up defenses with their two tight-end sets, Mays gives his own defense a big body for the run that can also cover a tight end when Cincinnati combats the other team's big and small looks.

Jeromy Miles, who may be about to ascend to the Dan Skuta mantle of de facto special teams captain, has a foothold in any roster battle. Tony Dye, who missed all of his rookie year last season with injury, is back on the field but 2011 fifth-rounder Robert Sands is not after missing last season with a chest injury.

So now there is the annual debate. Do the Bengals keep six cornerbacks and four safeties? Or five and five? But it sure looks like Williams is going to be around somewhere because he's also impressed special teams coordinator Darrin Simmons. Defensive coordinator Mike Zimmer isn't enthralled with his technique, but he's done a lot with guys that don't have Williams's brawn and brains, and he's enthusiastic about the rookie's skill set.

"He's a really smart guy; he picks up things really quickly," says assistant secondary coach Adam Zimmer. "As he gets more confident, he'll get more vocal. That will make him an even better player. He really has good instincts for a safety just out of college.

"He kind of feels routes. He sees the quarterback and knows when to break. I've been really impressed with him. I think he's got a chance to be a pretty good player. He's a good enough athlete that if he uses good technique and good eyes and knows who he's going against he can get it done (in coverage)."

Williams knows he'll have to eventually shout it out before the snap like he did at Georgia. But playing in a secondary with guys he had watched on TV (Nelson, Mays, Terence Newman), he had a plan when he arrived.

"You have to gain the respect of older guys. Give them the opportunity to go first and say what they want to say and just back it up until I get on that level," Williams says. "The coaches and other players, they say to me, 'You have to talk and communicate more to make sure we're all on the same page.' "

So Williams is working on the vocal part even if it goes against the principle of deferring to his elders, one of the maxims bred in in him while growing up in the tiny, ordered town of Damascus, Ga. His only sibling and role model, 30-year-old Joe Williams Jr., uses 'Sir' in every sentence during a recent phone call.

"When you're brought up like that," he says, "it's something you always do because you're used to it. … (My parents) instilled discipline in us."

His father, Joe Sr., drives a forklift at Tyson Foods, where his mother works on the chicken line, and his message to Joe was to do better than he did. Senior played football (running back/linebacker), as well as basketball and baseball at Early County High School. So did Junior, but he went on to play cornerback at Albany State and started for a year.

"We're competitive," Joe Jr. says. "My daddy told me to do better than him and I told Shawn to do better than me."

Other than fishing and playing cards, sports was pretty much it in a place that Joe Jr. describes as "a little country town. Two stores, a railroad track, no traffic lights … everyone knows everybody. About 400 people."

With Joe Jr. showing the way, Shawn, 22, also played football and basketball, and was good enough playing shortstop and center field that the Braves and Angels stopped into scout him but didn't draft him when it became clear football was his game.

"He loves football; he's a contact guy," Joe Jr. says. "He likes to hit. I think he got that from his daddy."

But Shawn says he got some of his toughness and leadership skills from Joe Jr. Now married with two boys and two girls, Joe is the sergeant who oversees the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT) at the medium security Burruss Correctional Training Center in Forsyth, Ga.

"It's very tough; it's not for everybody," Joe says of the corrections field. "There are good days and bad days. It gets dangerous sometimes."

The Williams men also passed to Shawn "a desire to win. We don't play to lose. You play to win and have fun," Joe says and that's what spawned Shawn's remarks of last October.

"We're playing too soft as a defense," Williams said after the first practice of the week before the game against No. 2 Florida. "That goes for the D-line, linebackers, corners, safeties, everybody. We're just not playing with the same attitude we were last year. I don't know what it is.

"After the first series [against Kentucky], I told everybody we played too soft. ... They got the ball at the 20 and went 80 yards right up the middle. I came to the sideline and said 'y'all are playing soft.' It gets frustrating because I'm sitting here and I'm giving all I've got and I feel like I've got some guys that are not. I feel we've got some guys that are in a whole different place. ... I'm trying to see if I have to take somebody's helmet off and slap them and say, 'what's going on?' We're not playing with any emotion right now. Period."

The quotes reportedly didn't go over well with teammates and coaches, but Williams had the last word in Georgia's 17-9 victory, and he stands by them.

"Shawn is going to give it to you straight," Joe says.

"I was just saying that we had to play up to our potential," Shawn says. "If we didn't start playing that way, the way that we expected to play, we were going to have trouble playing for the SEC title."

So now Williams is embedded in Bulldogs lore, leading Georgia into an iconic conference title game with eventual national champion Alabama that ended with the Dawgs barely running out of time on the Tide's doorstep.

"I talk about that with Tyler a lot," Williams says of his new Notre Dame teammate that played in a what-might-have-national title game. "What were we, six seconds and five yards from winning the SEC?"

But around Paul Brown Stadium, Williams has been a typical Bulldog. Which means he hasn't said much of anything while putting his head down and working.

Atkins, the best defensive tackle in the NFL many believe, says about as many words as he's been to Pro Bowls. Two. Same with the best player on the team, gamebreaking wide receiver A.J. Green, The Anti-Diva. Left end Robert Geathers has played the most Bengals games of anyone on the roster and his stoic, blue-collar leadership has set the tone for one of the NFL's best defensive lines.

Left guard Clint Boling quietly started 16 solid games in his second season last year, backup right tackle Dennis Roland is the silent and workman-like coach's son, and fullback/tight end Orson Charles is showing Williams around Cincinnati in his second season.

"Orson doesn't say much either; we just do our jobs," says Williams, who got a brief, naturally, pep talk from Geathers. "Do what you do best and that's play football."

Or as Atkins says, "We don't do much talking. We let our play speak for itself."

But he liked the words he heard before Georgia-Florida.

"You need that in a locker room," Atkins says. "If the defense or the team's not playing right, you need somebody to call the team out and say, 'Hey, you've got to play better.' Once he starts getting some plays underneath him, getting in preseason, and start playing in the real games, he's going to earn the respect."

Williams, no doubt, is hoping his voice is in the same spot as the respect.

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